Taking back control of your mental health

A quick look at what you can do to help your mental health, especially if you find yourself (or someone you love) going through a bad period of health.

By Steve Whyley / 29 March 2017
9 min read

As I have written before, my wife has suffered (and continues to suffer - on and off) with anxiety.

I was blown away by the reaction of the post that I shared on Getinspired365 and Medium a couple of months ago. I ended up receiving close to ~200 emails, with the vast majority describing their own battle with anxiety - either personally, or regarding a loved one. The common theme that ran through almost all these emails was around what practical steps could I [the person emailing] do to help improve my own anxiety, or the anxiety of a loved one.

I have spent some time giving this subject a bit of thought and here are my own thoughts around this subject. This is just from my perspective and what may work for my wife and I may not work for the reader but I hope some of the information contained within this article proves to be of some use. As ever, I am more than happy to join in the conversation in the comments below.

First, Anxiety is often misunderstood. It can be incredibly debilitating and the worst thing about it is that it can come on from no where and without reason. As I previously said, the best way I can describe it is that you’re faced with someone who is just paralysed with fear, unable to communicate effectively and on the verge of total panic.

Anxiety is both a mental illness, and a physical illness. It can cause chest pains - so severe that you may think you are experiencing a heart attack. It can cause you to be boiling hot, or freezing cold and can make sleep either an impossibility or can leave you feeling chained to your bed through lethargy.

The horrible thing about anxiety is that it often feels like it is controlling you and taking over your life - your personal relationships, your work - everything. And when you are going through a particularly bad spell you just can't imagine yourself getting better, and perhaps you won't unless you take some action.

So what can you do?

First things first, as the partner make sure you involve yourself in their anxiety. And if you are the one suffering then see if a partner/loved one can take on this role. As the supporter, find out how they are feeling and try and notice trends and triggers because chances are they won't - catalogue these so you can begin to identify triggers, and therefore avoid or address them. Communicate on the days they are feeling better to try and identify things that you, the partner, did well and did not do so well and conversely the sufferer may want to volunteer up this information should they feel like they're in a good place and capable of doing so. 

Ultimately, as the person not suffering, you just want to make sure that they know they are loved and that are not facing this alone. Make countless cups of tea, give them a hug and do your best to take their mind off of things when they are experiencing an attack - could be trying to get them to go to the cinema, or trying to bake a cake together. The anxious mind is unlikely to get better mid attack if you allow anxious thoughts to fester. It's your job, as the non sufferer, to try and pull them out of it if you possibly can. And as the sufferer, it is your job to perhaps allow your partner to take on this role. It may sound exhausting, trust me it is a walk in the park compared to what the anxiety sufferer suffers with.


Doctor

We wanted to find a doctor that was understanding so my wife trialed with different people - she tended to find younger doctors more understanding of mental health, and also found women to be generally more supportive of her illness, but we actually ended up finding a ~40 year old male doctor who changed our lives.

My wife had previously had poor doctor after poor doctor who were not very communicative and who just tried to get rid of her/fob her off. They put her on the wrong medication - they put her on a Benzo (Lorazepam). It transpired this drug is not an SSRI type of drug, i.e. one that you are not meant to be on long term. Her doctor though had her on it for a year (as they were effectively treating her for the wrong thing) - this made her more ill than what she needed to be, and also meant when she came off the medication she endured terrible withdrawal symptoms. The worst feeling in the world is seeing the person you love suffer and not being able to do a single thing to help her and suffer she did. I remember her not going to bed for 48 hours such was the severity of the withdrawal - she was shaking, white as a sheet and was as upset as I'd ever seen her which devastated me. So my advice would be to definitely spend some time understanding medications that doctors recommend. It was a big regret of ours.

Make a note of some of your symptoms and discuss your options - don't just accept what they say, challenge them and try and find out what your options are. In the early days we were rabbits in the headlights - accepting what doctors were telling us and were spoken to rather than engaging in conversation.

As I say we've found a great doctor now that we have complete trust in and the doctor doesn't just throw pills at us. For example, we were prescribed yoga which has definitely helped my wife no end. I attempted it, failed miserably, but I did buy her a mat! Me attempting yoga at all was possibly the highlight of our marriage!

Pills definitely work for some people and can absolutely put you back onto a level footing, but they don't have to be the only answer and a doctor's role isn't limited to just prescribing medication. 

A doctor's role isn't limited to just prescribing medication.

Counsellor

Second, and you can do this in parallel, is find yourself a good private counsellor. We didn't necessarily know why she felt such consistent anxiety (back then) and she didn't know what to do when she suffered from bad spells of it. Originally she had a counsellor who she saw weekly for a couple of months but she ultimately felt like the relationship wasn't working and that she didn't click with her. For example, the counsellor suggested things that my wife wasn't comfortable with and at no stage was a rapport built up. It is fine to to change counsellor. End of the day, you have to trust this person so it is vital to get this relationship right.

The new counsellor was great and my wife immediately got a good feeling from her. Trust your gut, you will know if you feel comfortable opening up to a person, and if you don't feel comfortable then change. The second counsellor went above and beyond - even travelling to our house (I left them to it, and went for a walk) to save my wife from having to travel back up to London at weekends. 

Through this counsellor my wife was able to identify triggers that caused her anxiety and learned of techniques to try and manage it. It's something she will never be completely free from but she is now able to more effectively manage her reaction to anxious thoughts and feelings. If you can afford to go Private I think that would be really useful as the NHS just take so long to get you a session. 

To begin to look for a counsellor go here - http://www.itsgoodtotalk.org.uk/ and select your area and what you believe you may be suffering from. Then it is a case of working through their profile's, view what skills they have and what they specialise in. Again, you may feel more comfortable with a man/woman, young/old. etc. Each person will have their own website which you can then research further and begin to build up a list of people that you think may be appropriate. A session costs around £40-£60 and I'd really recommend recording it which is what my wife did. This allowed us to go back through recordings (when appropriate) as there's lots of information that it can be hard to take it all in. By recording it we were then able to set weekly goals/tasks based on what had been discussed in that session.

My wife has gone over a year without seeing a counsellor such is the progress she's made but just knowing we have this counsellor available to us is of great comfort.

As well as counselling try to encourage anxiety and mental health to not be a taboo subject. If you can open up to friends about it then great - it will definitely be a big help.

Diet

My wife has a lot of allergies and we started a food diary. We were amazed to see that when we had some particular meals that an anxiety attack seemed to follow hours/a day later. There could be absolutely nothing in this but since cutting out foods that triggered anxious feeling she's certainly noticed a big improvement. Interestingly, my friend suffered from anxiety and it transpired he was lactose intolerant. He cut out lactose and is now largely anxiety free. My wife, weirdly, seems to suffer if she eats food with tomatoes or chilli's. I can't explain it but the reading I have done suggest diet (caffeine and sugar especially) is linked to Anxiety.

Routine

Create a set of positive routines. By this I mean - plan meals for the week, make sure you've got food in the house. Try to buy your train ticket the night before. Wash up after you've eaten - get into good habits. Write to do lists. Don't go to bed thinking did I lock the door - create a routine that you follow every single night that gets the person into bed with as empty a mind as possible. Anxiety sufferers tend to operate at their best when there's routine and so this kind of thing can be vital. My wife for example enjoys going to bed slightly earlier and reading. She'll aim to avoid social media late at night. Small things like this on their own may not make you better, but all added up can make a big difference.

Exercise

My wife finds rigorous exercise makes no difference but to others it has saved their life - so definitely explore exercise and the benefits that exercise can have. My wife tried a personal trainer. She tried running regularly but she found it hard and didn't get much out of it but as I say for many people it has transformed their lives/

Live

Live your life! Temptation is there to not do anything and to live in your little bubble for fear you could spark an anxiety attack. But it is important that on the good days you seize opportunities to do things that you may not do on an anxious day. I think this is really important. It will help the person suffering to show them that they are capable of more than they think and it will stop you (as a couple/individual) from getting into a rut where anxiety becomes all consuming. Don't do things that could spark an attack - so don't announce a bungee jump (!) but perhaps go out for dinner or go watch a film, or go bowling. We were fearful of living our life for fear of an anxiety attack but that actually made anxiety more prevalent because all we were doing was waiting for an attack, or talking anxiety and being controlled by it. Our life was totally consumed by anxiety and it wasn't healthy. So you need to, where possible, live and do normal things. Enjoy good days, and try and make light of bad ones. Create an atmosphere of humour and light - avoid being serious, where possible. If anxiety strikes then acknowledge it but make light of it "oh you again". And if it gets really bad then distract her, and you - go shopping, go and play pool - anything that can maybe distract the person. All else fails, go get the cat and the duvet and grab Netflix and eat ice cream and remind each other that tomorrow is a new day, a day with endless possibilities.

I think the important thing is to feel like you are taking some action. I appreciate it is an overwhelming task but I think once you begin taking some form of action then you feel positive that you are at least doing something about it. I think if you are able to find a doctor you like and who understands you, and a counsellor that you are comfortable with then the impact to your health and wellbeing will be massive. It's something that requires constant work, and understanding from others but it is something you can get better from and it is something you can make daily progress with. My wife now suffers from anxiety for only around 5-10% of the week, four years ago it was 90% of the week.

Oh, and my final bit of advice - tell the person who is suffering that you love them. You can never tell them that enough. And if you are suffering yourself, then tell your partner - who is probably doing their very best - that you love them because chances are, they'll need to hear that.

My final bit of advice - tell the person who is suffering that you love them. You can never tell them that enough.

I hope some of the advice in here is helpful, and I hope that you are able to make improvements like my wife has.

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